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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Trotsky
The Trotsky
Tribeca Film Festival // Unrated // December 14, 2010
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Rohit Rao | posted January 29, 2011 | E-mail the Author
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The Trotsky possesses an off the wall central conceit which it leans on until anything of substance gets squeezed out and ignored. It just goes to show that even a killer idea can seem pedestrian when it fails to blossom and grow beyond its initial scope.

What's in a name? Many of us ponder this from time to time but I suspect Leon Bronstein (Jay Baruchel) has us all beat. Ever since Leon realized that he had the same birth name as Leon Trotsky, the famed Marxist Russian leader, he started to believe that he was in fact Trotsky reincarnated. The strength of this belief convinced Leon that he would live out the rest of his days just as Trotsky had. This explains the note cards in his room mapping out future events like marrying an older woman named Alexandra, getting exiled and being assassinated (hopefully some place warm). If you haven't gathered by now, Leon is a very special teenager.

When a job at his dad's (Saul Rubinek) company ends with Leon attempting to unionize the workers and leading them in a (failed) hunger strike, the camel's back finally breaks. Leon is plucked out of his cushy boarding school and placed in a public school under the stern eye of Principal Berkhoff (Colm Feore). Despite Berkhoff's authoritarian stance, Leon is encouraged at first by the presence of a 'Student Union' on campus. He is soon crushed by the realization that the Union's sphere of influence only extends to the annual school dance. He will simply have to fulfill his destiny by opposing the school's fascist regime and forming a true Union of the Students. Of course he'll have to fit all this in while courting a foxy law student. You know, the older one named Alexandra (goose bumps!).

I have to admit something here. Having looked around a bit, I can guarantee you that I am in the minority when it comes to my negative opinion of this film. At first I questioned whether I had missed something. Maybe I just didn't get it. After a little more thought, I came to the conclusion that I got as much as I was going to get from it. My assessment of the film may sound a little harsh but rest assured that it comes from a place of frustration and not outright disdain. The Trotsky has everything that I would look for in a movie. The premise is catchy. The characters are essayed by actors who seem to be having fun with their roles. The writing is sharp and often funny. And yet...the balance is off. Certain key elements are grossly underdeveloped while other unnecessary plot points bully their way in and hog significant screen time.

My biggest problem with the film lies at its very core, the character of Leon himself. His anti-establishment snark may have hints of Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Rushmore, but the film that my mind raced to on multiple occasions was The Namesake. I know it's not fair to draw a direct comparison between a serious drama about discovering one's cultural identity and a comedy about a teenager who thinks he's a reincarnated Marxist leader. With that said, I think Gogol (Kal Penn) and Leon are worth contrasting with each other. They are both saddled with weighty names of great thinkers. While Gogol goes through an identity crisis in order to earn his moniker, Leon blindly accepts that he is simply Trotsky reincarnated. This leads to his assumption of a pre-determined path in life. To say that he doesn't have a character arc is an understatement.

Equally troubling is the fact that so many people around Leon happily entertain his delusion. His sister, Sarah (Tommie-Amber Pirie), is his adoring minion while his stepmother continues to defend him against his entirely rational father's complaints. This unbelievable fantasy comes to a head with the inclusion of a forced romantic angle. When Leon bumps into Alexandra (Emily Hampshire), he isn't even interested in her until he learns her name. As soon as that happens, the pre-ordained fantasy kicks in and he chases / stalks her until she admits defeat and 'loves' him back. This entire subplot could have been jettisoned without hurting the film which already feels bulky with a running time close to two hours. Of course that means losing Hampshire's wonderful performance as the bewildered Alexandra and I wouldn't want to see that happen.

It's possible that this is meant to be viewed as a satirical take on a standard issue high school story but the filmmakers' own sincerity keeps getting in the way. It's quite apparent that writer / director Jacob Tierney means to send a message about youth taking a stand and being conscious thinkers rather than apathetic sheep. The perplexing bit is that he doesn't really give them anything concrete to take a stand on. Feore is appropriately beady as the cunning principal but he hardly seems like a taskmaster. We are supposed to believe that a few kids getting detention for admittedly silly reasons is cause enough to overthrow the system. Without true motivation, Leon and his cohorts come off as bored and petulant children rather than budding leaders.

Tierney clearly has imagination in spades and Baruchel does a fine job with a character that should be utterly insufferable. I was waiting for the story to bloom as Leon found true purpose for his actions. Instead the film shrinks in on itself as his rigid adherence to a dead man's timeline forces the world to bend around him. Cleverness trumps completeness and that just doesn't work for me.


The anamorphic widescreen image was fairly clear. I noticed a few instances of moiré but nothing to get too bothered about. The color palette was occasionally flat and drab but was accurately conveyed. Director Tierney has a sharp eye for composition which this transfer appropriately captured.

The audio was presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround and Stereo mixes. I chose to view the film with the 5.1 surround mix. This wasn't the most vigorous of mixes which is to be expected given the subject matter. With that said, I didn't notice any major audio defects. All the voices came through clearly and the lively soundtrack by Malajube was well represented.

For a small indie film, this release featured a substantial set of extras. First up we have an Audio Commentary with Director Jacob Tierney and Editor Arthur Tarnowski. This was a petty fun track to listen to since both guys are witty with a self-deprecating sense of humor. Tierney, especially, is a lively, rambling talker with much to say about the entire filming process. Much of the discussion is centered on the actors and the locations themselves. I would have appreciated a bit more time dedicated to the central themes of the film but it's hard to complain when you are being entertaining by such engaging speakers.

Next up, we have two featurettes based around the film's showing at the Tribeca Film Festival. I'm not sure why they've been split up since they cover much of the same ground. My Tribeca Story (2:27) is an introduction by Director Tierney where he talks about the development process of the film. It's interesting to hear that the first draft wasn't really a comedy until he decided that it should be like 'Reds in High School but funny'. On the Red Carpet with The Trotsky (2:47) is another interview with Tierney where he goes into some more detail on Leon's character and indicates his appreciation for the Tribeca Film Festival.

The Blooper and Outtakes (11:27) feature much of what you'd expect from the filming of a comedy. We get flubbed lines, uncontrollable giggles, gaffes, creative ad-libbing and some salty, salty language. 9 Deleted Scenes (14:11) cover a lot of ground including an alternate opening and a different first meeting between Leon and Alexandra. While I can understand why these scenes had to be excised, we do lose a few nice moments between Leon and his dad and sister. If nothing else, these scenes soften his character a little bit and make him a tad more human in my eyes.

The final featurette is a short Making of (11:57) piece that highlights the jovial environment on set. The cast and crew clearly enjoy being in each other's company and their enthusiasm is infectious. We get to hear from Tierney and most of the central cast including Baruchel and Feore.

Director Jacob Tierney's imagination and talent are undeniable. Unfortunately they are both in service of a character I just couldn't get behind. Baruchel's lead character is supposed to be a quirky dreamer but in the absence of true motivation and substance, he comes off as a bit of a poseur. I suspect a lot of viewers will be able to get past my sticking points with the film. If you are in the mood for a high school comedy with a creative twist, you could do far worse than The Trotsky. Perhaps in time, the positives will overshadow my issues with it. However given my current feelings towards the film, I would say Rent It.

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